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  • Writer's pictureBoo

A Mercy-Full Church

Updated: Feb 18

Wherever two or three gather in my name, I am there in the middle with them. ~ Jesus (Matthew 18:20)

CORE (The heart of the message): We can experience the presence of Jesus through small expressions of church, especially when we are on mercy missions of grace, reconciliation, and restoration. This is the church I want to belong to.

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Before this verse, Jesus is discussing with his disciples what it looks like to actively pursue lost sheep, often wandering alone because of their own sin and shame (or possibly the sin of someone else toward them). We go to these separated sheep ready with a message of forgiveness and healing. If they refuse to even listen to us, we practice restorative (not retributive) justice, always hoping for and working for reconciliation. When we do the work of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, all heaven aligns with us and empowers us, and we are fulfilling Jesus’ vision for his Church. Jesus uses the word “church” two ways: a) the universal body of believers (Matthew 16:18), and in this immediate context, b) a small local expression of that large global reality (Matthew 18:17). So, the two or three gathered find their identity as an expression of the universal church and a local church.

The word “church” (Greek ecclesia) means a gathering of people with purpose. One important purpose of the Church is helping to mend broken relationships by passing on to others the love and forgiveness we receive from Jesus (Romans 15:7; Ephesians 4:32; etc). Even when they refuse to listen to us, Jesus says we are to relate to stubborn stray sheep like pagans and tax collectors. Jews in Israel at that time despised pagans (their Roman oppressors) and tax collectors (Jewish traitors working for the oppressors), but Jesus is here addressing his disciples (18:1), and he had already been teaching them in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere to treat outsiders and even enemies with compassion and kindness, like any other image-bearer of God. Then, following this discussion, Peter will ask about how much forgiveness is too much. Jesus responds that we should forgive infinitely (seventy times seven) and goes on to tell an important parable about the centrality of offering others the radical forgiveness that God gives us.

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

As the context makes clear, this gathering of the two or three (the smallest possible group) in Jesus’ name (that is, because of Jesus, to do the will and work of Jesus, to honour Jesus) is not just for fellowship, worship, comfort, or encouragement, but for the mission of reconciliation. Yes, Jesus is present with us when we are alone, but especially when we are on mercy missions, working together for the restoration of sinning shamed separated sheep. In fact, the Greek verb in this verse (mesos) means more than Jesus just joining the circle of fellowship, but that he is in the middle of it all, in the centre of the gathering (also used in 18:2 of Jesus putting a child in the centre of a discussion).

Notice the man Jesus is already speaking of himself like he has the potential of being spiritually present like God (e.g., Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Zephaniah 3:17; Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5; etc). Ultimately, through the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:9, 8:39; 16:7; Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19; 1 Peter 1:11), Jesus is "The Ghost of 18:20". The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that God’s personal presence (the Shekhinah) comes whenever two or three gather to talk about the Torah (Mishna, Avot 3.2, 6). Jesus speaks of his own presence as though he is the true Divine Shekhinah, and says his presence comes whenever two or three gather to go beyond law to grace and beyond mere Bible study to live lives of love-in-action. When we pursue reconciliation together, Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23).

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application): Jesus told his fishermen followers that he would make them “fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19). Today we might mistakenly picture this metaphor as a solo individual using the Bible as a fishing rod, trying to “hook” people into following Jesus. But Jesus had a relational matrix in mind, where fishing is done with a net and his followers “catch” people by inviting them into loving relationship.

Fishing nets always need mending maintenance lest their small tears become large, allowing the fish to pass through and making the nets useless. In this passage and so many others, Jesus is teaching the priority of the ongoing ministry of mending. The Greek word for mending (katartizo) means to repair or prepare, which were the same thing for fishermen in Jesus’ day (Matthew 4:21). Relational repairing is the work of preparing for ministry (Luke 6:37-42; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Hebrews 13:20-21). A church with broken relationships is like a net with gaping holes. We are standing here on the holy ground of the Gospel (the Good News of Jesus), which is all about mending broken or breaking relationships, with God and one another. All relationships are in an ongoing process of disintegration and (hopefully) reintegration. Sin separates. Grace restores. In addition to major relational sins and shortcomings, countless daily micro-aggressions, micro-omissions, and/or micro-misunderstandings must be met with an endless flow of micro-mercies to maintain the health and unity of any relationship. If we are going to be a loving community and a unified community, we will need to be a gracious community: courageous in confrontation, ready to listen and repent, quick to forgive, and always eager to be merciful.

So, much of Jesus’ teaching is about how to pursue reconciliation whenever sin has caused division, with the receiving and giving of forgiveness at the core of our experience and expression. Jesus did not have a utopian vision of his future church; he never expected us to be perfect in this life, but he did expect us to be gracious.

Like in Leviticus 19:17-18, direct, personal, private, vulnerable truth-telling about someone’s significant sin is an act of deep love. Caring confrontation according to the plank-eye process of Jesus (see Matthew 7:1-5; Luke 6:37-42; 17:3-4) gives the other person an opportunity to grow through repentance (rethinking).

Let's connect the dots. The one lost sheep parallels the sinning Christian in Matthew 18 — the context makes that clear. And in Luke 15 the one lost sheep parallels the Prodigal Son. The sheep, the son, and the sinner all point toward the same experience of restoring the sinning, shamed, and separated child of God. And these all parallel the sinning brother in the Corinthian church, the brother or sister caught in sin in Galatians 6, the sliver-eyed sinner in Matthew 7, the fellow believer needing confrontation in Luke 17, the woman caught in adultery in John 8, those who mourn over their own sin in the Beatitudes, and on and on it goes. All the energy of the Church comes to bear when a sheep wanders away, because a sinner who is gently guided toward repentance and restoration is a great cause for celebration in the kingdom of heaven, like a beloved son who "was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found" (Luke 15:32). (More about this in our Sermon on the Mount study – SM #3: Good Mourning.)

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. ~ Jesus (Luke 15:7)

Noticeably absent in pursuit of the lost sheep and its parallels are contemporary cultural trends of calling out, cancelling, shaming, and performative public outrage. These take a back seat to humble and private envoys of truth-telling and grace-giving. Even when the apostle Paul has to publicly challenge the apostle Peter, he still speaks to Peter directly, not about Peter to others (Galatians 2:11-14). This kind of public rebuke of a church leader happens when they refuse to repent but persist in their sin (1 Timothy 5:20).

Some well meaning justice oriented Christians like to reference Ephesians 5:11-13, where Paul seems to say the opposite of Jesus in Matthew 18. Whereas Jesus commands direct, face-to-face, personal, and private communication as the first step toward reconciliation and restoration, Paul seems to skip straight to public exposure of private sin.

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. ~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:11-13)

These justice oriented (as opposed to grace oriented) Christians interpret this passage as telling us to publicly expose significant secretive shameful sin. When we drag sin out of the hidden dark corners of our lives and into the light (usually interpreted as a public announcement in person or online), then healing for all can begin. This sounds good on the surface, except for two things: a) it wrongly pits Paul against Jesus, and b) it is a misunderstanding of what Paul is actually saying. In reality, Paul uses the very same Greek word here that Matthew uses for Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18 regarding personal, private, relational rebuke. Jesus says we should go to a sinning sister and brother privately and "show them their fault" or "point out their fault" or "rebuke them". That is, "expose" their sin to them and shine the light of truth into their hearts. That's how this Greek word is used. So try reading the above passage (Ephesians 5:11-13) again but substitute "privately rebuke" or "personally challenge" or "help them see what they are doing" in place of "expose" and you will get closer to Paul's point. This makes sense of his next thought - that it is shameful to talk about these things in public.

How sad that large segments of the Christian Church today seem to take pride in "exposing" sin to the light of public judgement rather than personally and privately "rebuking" sinning Christians with the hope of relational repentance and reconciliation. They are using a misunderstanding of Paul to undermine the clarity of Christ on this important topic of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy.

We will always get closer to the truth when we interpret Paul (and every other biblical thinker) in light of Jesus, not Jesus in light of Paul.

[For more on private rebuke VS public exposure, see our 1820 study about being the light of the world. And see our 1820 study on gentleness for more on the importance of face-to-face communication especially in situations of potential conflict, and cautions about the "online disinhibition effect" created by communication in cyberspace, mediated through screens and keyboards. Spoiler alert: online communication is not helping the Church live out the principles of Jesus.]

So we prioritize talking TO the one lost sheep, not talking ABOUT them to the ninety-nine. If they refuse to listen to us, we are not responsible for their reaction. We cannot force them to receive the gift of grace we offer. We simply move on, no fuss, no drama, treating them as any other person God loves, even if for the time being we do not include them in our Church fellowship. This process, which Christians today often call the practice of “Church Discipline” (putting the emphasis on some sort of punishment if things don’t go well), might be better labelled the practice of “Church Restoration”, “Church Reconciliation”, “Relational Healing”, or “Mercy Missions” (putting the emphasis on the actual goal at the heart of it all). The emphasis in Jesus’ teaching here is not when and how to kick sheep out of the flock, but the importance of pursuing lost sheep and helping them return.

Notice that in Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son it is the older brother who, filled with moral outrage, champions the way of justice and what is "fair". But the father stands on the side of the unfairness of grace, and the older brother is left standing out in the field.

Social justice is a high value of our day. We fight for justice, march for justice, protest for justice, post online about justice, and, hopefully, pray for justice. Good! And yet, a caution: from the perspective of Jesus, justice alone only gets us as far as the Old Covenant. And even then, while we are called act justly, we must do so while we love mercy and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). [See our 1820 study, SM #5: Holy Hunger, in the Sermon on the Mount series, for an important biblical distinction between justice and righteousness.]

In the Old Covenant days, one way the community dealt with sin was to put all their sins symbolically onto a goat, the Scapegoat, and to send it out of the community and into the wilderness (see the instructions for Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16). Other cultures have done something similar with the concept of a "sin-eater". But Jesus has become the final and complete sin-eater on behalf of the whole world. It is finished.

To really offer the world something completely new, completely New Covenant, completely kingdom of heaven on earth, we need to create and cultivate communities who know how to go beyond justice to mercy. In truly New Covenant communities, justice sings backup, while grace sings lead.

Notice how the early church, even when practicing the final stage of "church discipline" or shunning with an unrepentant church member still took great caution to apply grace, mercy, and forgiveness as the dominant values they expressed. For them, it was a matter of siding with the God of compassion and not the enemy of our souls. The apostle Paul writes:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. ~ The apostle Paul (Galatians 6:1-2)

And again:

If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. The discipline put upon him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. ... Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

Strong words. Satan himself wants to use our sense of moral outrage to take church discipline in the wrong direction. The Devil is on the side of justice without mercy, punishment without compassion, accountability without grace, and discipline without forgiveness. Satan means "the Accuser". We are called to be aware of this and not unwittingly help the Devil accomplish his agenda.

Perhaps when the gracious and mercy-full pattern of the early church is followed more and more, lost sheep will find it easier to come home on their own initiative. As James 5:16 tells us, we should be willing to confess our sin. And when someone confesses to us, our response is simple: we pray. We don't need to chastise or moralize, we simply listen and pray. How gracious, how welcoming, how mercy-full. (Note: For more on the biblical emphasis on mercy, see our 1820 study "SM #6: Mercy Me" in our Sermon on the Mount series.)

But what if, as some protest, the sinner doesn't confess until they are caught or confronted? How can we trust their confession? Two things in response: First, God will judge hearts. That's not our business. Second, this concern is raised by people who may be sincere but who haven't been paying attention to the biblical data. Most confessions held up as exemplary in the Bible are by sinners who are caught or confronted. This includes sinners who need to be confronted in Matthew 7 and 18 and Luke 17, the Corinthian church scandal, the brother or sister caught in their sin in Galatians 6 who must be gently restored, the woman caught in adultery, the lost sheep that must be retrieved, the apostle Peter thrice confronted (once in a pre-confrontation by Jesus, then again through the rooster, and on another occasion by the apostle Paul in Galatia), and even the apostle Paul himself, the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), whom Jesus himself confronts and then God uses to lead his church and write holy Scripture. Even the Prodigal Son only comes home because he has run out of money, and the Father rejoices. And the same pattern is seen throughout the Old Testament, starting with Adam and Eve, who God confronted personally. Then God repeatedly sends prophets to confront Israel and call them back to repentance. And don't forget the Ninevites to whom God sent the prophet Jonah for the same purpose — to confront and call to repentance. And even King David doesn't repent of his greatest sins until he is shocked out of his denial through the confrontation of Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12). And yet David's confession and repentance are never questioned as anything but sincere and even held up as exemplary in Scripture (eg, Psalm 51).

The pattern of sin almost always includes hiding our failure, sometimes consciously and sometimes reflexively, without even thinking about it. Shame and fear-of-exposure are powerful forces. Gentle, direct, personal confrontation is God's gift to help us break the sin-shame-cycle.

If you are a sinning, shamed, and separated sheep, take heart. God will honour and even delight in your repentance and confession no matter what it takes to get you there. He loves you dearly and wants nothing more than to see you restored into full fellowship with him and his people. And if you are tempted to even question the genuineness of another's confession, stop trying to be the judge of human hearts: you are not good at it and the position is taken.

CONFESSION (Personal Reflection):

I confess that, even though I grew up in the Church and often studied and quoted and talked about this important passage (Matthew 18:20), I missed its main message of grace. I used to think that Jesus' promise to be with us when two or three gather in his name was just his way of encouraging us to keep going to church. When I grew up a little and zoomed out enough to see the context, I realized it was in the middle of a "Church Discipline" passage. But church discipline still meant having the courage to confront and even kick out someone who refused to repent of their sin. Unlike Jesus, my emphasis was always on the courage of confrontation and the important role of excommunication (valuable ideas to be sure, but not the central value of this passage), rather than the heart of compassion and mission of mercy at the centre of it all.

I am sorry to say that it took my own catastrophic failure and immense need of mercy for me to have open eyes to see what I had been missing all along. And now that I am surrounded by sisters and brothers who have pursued me, challenged me, forgiven me, and welcomed me into renewed fellowship, I find my heart rejoicing along with the angels.

CONCLUSION (One Last Thought):

Bottom line: If you want to get to know Jesus better, hang out with gracious, forgiving, reconciling, restorative Christ-followers. You’ll find Jesus in the middle of their ministry.

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Mend what is torn, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 13:11)

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Leviticus 16; 19:17-18; Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Psalm 51; 103; Proverbs 17:5; Zephaniah 3:17; Hebrews 13:5; ;Matthew 5:23-24; 6:14-15; 7:1-5; 18:1-35; 25:34-40; 28:20; Luke 6:37-42; 15:1-32; 17:3-4; John 13:34-35; 17:20-23; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 13:11; Galatians 6:1-2; Ephesians 4:31-5:2; James 1:27; 2:14-26; 5:16; 1 John 4:11-12, 19-21

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. How have you experienced Jesus through being with other people? Share examples.

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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13 comentários

So many excellent points, B.

I appreciate your Scripturally-backed rejection of the notion that the confession of people caught in sin ought not to be presumed genuine. This would be no less the case when historical sin is exposed. The Holy Spirit has the power to convict us of our sin and, unless we are suffering an ongoing or addictive sin for which we require the counsel of fellow believers, the Spirit’s conviction alone can certainly be sufficient for us to acknowledge the gravity of our sin and fully repent. Praise God.

You are right that “Social justice is a high value of our day” and that “Satan himself wants to use our sense of moral outrage to take church…


16 de mar. de 2023

I don't write my thoughts, emotions and thanks as eloquently as other commenters, but rest assured, they are epically felt in mind and heart.

The church that you want to be a part of is one I am searching for desperately. I'm thirsty for water, and can't find a cup. But reading this gave me some hope, so thank you for writing it for yourself, and letting me eavesdrop.


Absolutely spectacular thoughts and exposition on Jesus' own words. Very clever origin of the ghost! This writing drips of love and grace and reconciliation on a whole new level. A level I have been searching and thirsting for up until now. A church group that really practices reconciliation, restoration and grace is a church I will sign up for. So many comments hit home on so many levels in this article. I had to print it out to mull over it. Thank you Boo, you are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant christian church.


03 de mar. de 2023

Some really great points here! Justice without grace can be so dark… and I love the examples of sin being confronted or people ‘caught in the act’. His grace is sufficient! - Em


I so love that you are exploring these hard questions - and sharing those thoughts with whosoever will! - Dave Weber

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